WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama’s upcoming trip to Israel drew mostly positive responses from the participants at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) on Monday, most of them hopeful that the visit could smooth over some of the tension between the U.S. and Israel.
Overall, the attendants welcomed the news of the president’s first visit to Israel as head of state.
“I think seeing Israel is an eye-opener for anyone and I commend [the president] for making it the first foreign trip of his second term,” said Rabbi Samuel Kieffer of Penn Valley, Pa.
“It is great to hear the president will be visiting Israel. I hope it shows the direction in which the administration is going in this second term,” said Mark Rubinstein, an architect from San Diego, Calif.
Others praised the visit’s promise to strengthen the relationship between the two allies.
“It’s his first trip and I think it is wonderful that he’s going now to strengthen rapport with an ally. It will take time to get things done but any conversation will be a good thing,” said Joy Erickson of Park City, Utah.
The president’s trip, just before the Jewish holiday of Passover on March 25, will likely focus on Iran’s nuclear program and U.S. calls to freeze Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.
“The president…and I have spoken at length about this trip. And I can assure you he’s particularly looking forward to having a chance to hear directly from the people of Israel and beyond their political leaders, and particularly the younger generation of Israelis,” Vice President Joe Biden said during his Monday morning address at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.
“I have to admit I’m a little jealous that he gets to be the one to say ‘this year in Jerusalem,’ but I’m the vice president. I’m not the president,” he continued somewhat wistfully.
Early last month, White House spokesman Jay Carney said Obama would work closely with the Palestinian Authority and Jordanian officials on bilateral and regional issues during his visit to the region.
Some of the participants made clear their reservations about Obama’s trip, particularly his scheduled visits to the West Bank and Jordan.
“It depends. I just saw a report that he [Obama] intends to push for a timeline for withdrawal from Judea and Samaria [most of the West Bank]. So it depends on what the message is – if it is going to be withdraw settlements, it is not going to have a favorable impact,” said Michael Meyer of Livingston, N.J.
“I think it’s a good idea. I think it is overdue as far as trying to instill confidence in the relationship,” said Barry Shapiro of York, Pa. Nevertheless, he continued, “I’m skeptical anything will come out of it. I believe that actions drive issues rather than issues driving actions. I think Iran is a good example of that. They have to wait to see what happens before they can actually do anything.”
With the White House eagerly preparing the goodwill visit, Obama’s trip may come at a time of uncertainty for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is currently struggling to build a governing coalition before a March 16 deadline.
“As you know I was hoping to speak to you in person, but unfortunately, I had to stay in Israel to do something a lot more enjoyable: putting together a coalition government,” said Netanyahu sarcastically in a speech delivered via satellite to the audience at the AIPAC conference.
“If I can offer a free piece of advice: don’t adopt Israel’s system of government. You know, every system has its pluses and minuses. But believe me, it’s a lot easier finding common ground between two parties than it is to find common ground among ten parties. You think you have a difficulty working out your politics, believe me, this is harder,” the prime minister said.
When asked by reporters on Monday about a possible delay to the visit, Carney said: “We have no scheduling changes to announce. The President is looking forward to, very much, his trip to Israel and the region, and we’re on course planning that trip.”